Flat Earth News

This is another archival repost from the old blog — this time from March 2009.

The past few weeks seem to have seen laments for the decline of journalism and obituaries for old media reaching a critical mass. BoraZ has kindly collected a few dozen so that I don’t have to.

Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been reading Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, and because Davies did the last Skeptics in the Pub, that I have been noticing that the decline of newspapers is reaching this critical stage. Davies is a Guardian investigative journalist, and he’s breaking the rules by telling us just what a state the media is in. Flat Earth News, written two years ago, before the American newspapers started going bankrupt, and British newspapers shed half their workforce, documents the many multiplicative flaws in the system of news gathering, reporting, and dissemination which cause journalists to churn out the crap the passes for newspapers these days.

Davies’ conclusion is that journalism — a noble profession of bright people — has, largely as a cost-cutting measure, been reduced tochurnalism . Instead of spending a week researching a story in great depth and telling us the important facts that we didn’t know, journalists have been reduced to rewriting a dozen wire stories and press releases each day. Journalists no longer have the time, the background knowledge, or the luxury of specialisation, required to find out whether the words they are writing bear any resemblance to reality. Nor do they have the time to establish what conflicts of interest of their sources have and whether they are hiding things — instead, the words can be reported as he-said/she-said, and the report can technically never be wrong.

Indeed, the media and public relationships industry have evolved a sophisticated mutualistic relationship. Newspapers could not fill their papers without press release writers doing all their research (and even choosing their words) for them, and in return, interested parties get their side of the story, or their product, prominently placed in the story.

M’colleague suggested that this thesis sounded a little like a conspiracy theory. I, however, am generally convinced. I am convinced because I have seen it work so many times in the field that I am familiar with — science and medicine. I have seen how the British tabloid (and even broadsheet) newspapers build their oncological ontological database from poorly written press releases. I have seen how interested parties both in industry and pressure groups place their doubt or certainty in news stories about the environment. I’ve seen the basic failure of fact-checking as elementary mistakes in press releases about newly published journal papers are faithfully replaced in all papers. I’ve even seen my own words from Wikipedia appear in The Metro‘s obituary of John Peel. And I’ve seen how successfully our own side has fought back on the media’s own terms, when Sense About Science press released their detox dossier in the slow news week after Christmas.

Flat Earth News provides the overarching explanatory theory for why so much of the news media is, to quote a comment on Friday’s Ryanair-toilets “news story” publicity stunt, “such a great lorry load of cock.” Science bloggers like a good whinge about a bad science or medicine story in the paper, but the problem is much greater than just a few humanities graduates trying to write about science. That skepticism you apply when reading the science stories needs to apply to the politics, foreign events, business, and everything else besides, because the authors of those items know no more about their subject than the humanities graduates covering science do about theirs.

Journalists can cry that democracy is not possible without them; but there’s nothing empowering about a media that churns back the press releases of government departments and military agencies. There is nothing empowering in the Daily Mail.

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